Spirited Away
review by Dan Lybarger, 4 October 2002

Despite all of the time and energy he places into his animated movies, Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki half-jokingly advises his fans to watch his movies only once so they won’t miss out on the other things that life has to offer. His request is somewhat ironic because his movies, especially his last two: Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, often take a few viewings to really appreciate.

A lot of anime is made rather quickly and cheaply, whereas Miyazaki and his legion of animators and computer artists can take years and considerable sums of money. The effort is reflected in just about every frame in Spirited Away. Although some of the characters in the latest film have the “Manga eyes” or the exaggerated peepers associated with Japanese cartoons, there’s an expressiveness and attention to detail that’s missing from most animated films from any country. Even the clouds in some of background paintings are breathtaking to behold. Because of his long history as an animator (he toiled in that profession since 1963 before helming his own films starting in 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro), it’s a given that Spirited Away is going to look great. Still, much of the reason that Spirited Away is Japan’s current all-time box office champ and tied with Bloody Sunday for top prizes at this year’s Berlinale is because Miyazaki is also an engaging and subtle storyteller. Spirited Away is a wonderous tale for grade schoolers that never condescends or spoon feeds its themes. Miyazaki’s characters and situations are so engaging that he can condemn greed and environmental negligence without ever sermonizing.

Considering how surreal the film gets as it progresses, it’s odd that the protagonist in his latest adventure is bored ten-year-old named Chihiro (voiced in the American release by Daveigh Chase, who was the human half of Lilo and Stitch). The girl is reluctantly joining her parents as they move to a new town. Dad and Mom (Michael Chiklis and Loren Holly) try to make the long, dull journey seem more like an adventure, but Chihiro doesn’t buy it.

If Chihiro seems apathetic, it may be because her folks are a bit foolish. Her father’s undue fondness for shortcuts lands then in front of bizarre abandoned buildings that look like an abandoned amusement park, symptomatic of the Japanese “Bubble Economy,” which burst in the early 1990s. Chihiro senses they should leave, but her parents wander around and start gorging on some fresh, tasty morsels that just seem to be lying around. Dad figures that his cash and credit cards can easily cover the expense.

As darkness falls, Chihiro abruptly learns that the resort is actually open for business but for a clientele of strange spirits. She tries to warn her parents but finds that their appetites for the divinely intended morsels have literally turned them into pigs.

Merely keeping herself alive, much less rescuing her parents from the spell, proves to be an enormous challenge. Chihiro’s struggle also allows Miyazaki’s delightfully warped imagination to go into overdrive. From this point on, the screen is filled with fascinatingly odd spirits, magicians and other creatures, and unpredictability is the norm. Chihiro’s closest ally is a fellow named Haku (Jason Marsden), who looks like a human one minute and a dragon the next. She gets more help from an initially dismissive furnace operator named Kamaji (Disney veteran David Ogden Stiers). With eight rubbery limbs, the fussy creature gives new meaning to word “multi-tasking.” All of them must answer to a demanding, unsympathetic witch named Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette). Yubaba has a unique way of making sure that workers follow their contracts. To bind employees to their word, she steals their names and even magically lifts the name from both the page and the worker’s memory.

While all of these characters except for Chihiro are exotic, Miyazaki’s real gift is the way in which he can give them dynamic, three-dimensional personalities. It’s a pleasure to watch Chihiro grow from a spoiled sulker into a courageous and thoughtful girl. Similarly, a masked creature named No Face wavers between helpfulness and extreme gluttony (he eats attendants with the food), then reveals himself to be something entirely different. Commonly, animated movies and even most live action films have characters who are simply good or evil, and resolutions are reached only when one or the other triumphs (say, the Coyote falling off a cliff in pursuit of the Road Runner). Miyazaki’s approach, especially in his later movies, is refreshing because he presents characters who are not inherently good or evil but are driven by and occasionally learn from their choices. 

That’s not to say the exoticism in Spirited Away isn’t welcome. Jaw-dropping images come by the score. Keep an eye out for a lamp that literally leads people to their destinations (it’s an inside joke, a nod to Pixar veteran John Lasseter who was Executive Producer on the English dub). There’s even a spirit who is so dirty that the grunge on his skin includes a washing machine and an entire bicycle. Fans of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro might even notice that the magical soot balls who load the bathhouse furnace in Spirited Away look a bit like the dust bunnies in the earlier film.

The thought, imagination and sense of wonder that dominate Miyazaki’s movies are sorely needed in any country’s films. Because of his talent and appeal, Miyazaki has often been called “Japan’s Walt Disney.”  The term is an insult to both men. Disney was an outsider whose innovations gradually led him to dominate animation. Miyazaki learned his craft through the studio system. Uncle Walt could draw but gradually delegated the animation and the nuts-and-bolts filmmaking to people like Ub Iwerks. Miyazaki, on the other hand, pens his own stories, designs the characters, directs and even personally proofs and corrects much of the animation. Philosophically, Miyazaki has also questioned the attitudes in Disney’s movies. On Cinderella, he has mused, “I felt bad for the evil stepsisters. Couldn’t they be a little prettier? It would have appeared much more tragic if her sisters had been more charming and the prince had to choose among them.”

Thankfully both animation gurus share a refusal to treat animation as a simple novelty and eagerly push the limits of the technology and the content of the stories. The company that bears Walt’s name would do the legacy of both men a favor if they would release more of Miyazaki’s films here in the States. Disney has the American rights for Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films but has chosen to delay releasing them. This is a shame because Castle in the Sky and other wonderful titles are currently only available through imports and bootlegs. As any anime buff will tell you, Disney is not only disappointing fans but denying themselves and Studio Ghibli money because fan substitutes will proliferate as long as legitimate copies are unavailable.

The new American release of Spirited Away is a firm step in the right direction. Director Kirk Wise (Beauty and the Beast) and writers Cindy David Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt have made a solid English dub that helps explain some of the Japanese cultural idiosyncrasies and sounds like believable conversational English (Chihiro’s last line is a riot). Unlike Princess Mononoke, where the celebrity voices wound up distracting from the characters (hey, isn’t that Billy Bob Thornton?), the voice talents here are familiar but lesser known and more appropriately fit the characters. If Disney applies this care to the rest of the Ghibli canon, animation lovers in States will finally be able to understand why the rest of the world has been raving about Miyazaki’s films.

Read Carrie Gorringe's review from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and
Directed by:

Hayao Miyazaki

the Voices of:
Rumi Hiiragi
Miyu Irino
Mari Natsuki
Takashi Naitô
Yasuko Sawaguchi
Tatsuya Gashuin
Ryunosuke Kamiki
Yumi Tamai
Yo Oizumi
Koba Hayashi
Tsunehiko Kamijô
Takehiko Ono
Bunta Sugawara

English Version:
Daveigh Chase
Colleen O'Shaughnessy
Jason Marsden
Suzanne Pleshette
Michael Chiklis
Lauren Holly
John Ratzenberger
Susan Egan
Tara Strong
David Ogden Stiers

Written by:
Steven Shainberg
Erin Cressida Wilson

PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children.







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